Neighborhood Watch

Social Sciences6 MIN READ

Political scientist Carrie LeVan studies how gentrification is changing city politics

Google Street View, Baltimore, Maryland
By Gerry Boyle ’78
January 9, 2020

For her first research project as an undergraduate at Cal State Bakersfield, Carrie LeVan went door to door in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, knocking on doors and encouraging people to vote. In the subsequent election, they did just that, boosting the turnout rate in the precinct from a perennial 25 percent to an unprecedented 40 percent.

But LeVan had only spoken to a couple of hundred people.

“I remember telling my undergrad advisor, ‘I think they talked to each other,’” she recalled. “He said, ‘There’s no way there’s spillover. People don’t talk to their neighbors.’ I said, ‘But in poor neighborhoods people use space differently.’”

A political scientist and an assistant professor of government at Colby, LeVan is still studying how where people live affects their social and political behavior. But now she has some high-tech tools—Google Street View images that she and student researchers examine with sophisticated data analysis—to support her conclusions.

“There’s so little we know in political-science thinking about context,” LeVan said. Surveys poll people on gender and race, income and education, but recent developments in cityscapes also play a role in how people use—or don’t use—their neighborhoods. “For a long time we ignored the fact that individuals actually live someplace, and there’s a whole bunch of other variables that are affecting individual behavior.”

LeVan knows some of those variables firsthand. She grew up in public housing in Bakersfield, where she knew her neighbors and gaggles of kids walked to the corner store for ice cream. There was a shared space for barbecuing and a communal laundry. Attending a high school in a more affluent area across the city, she saw how the other half lived—families rolling up driveways and disappearing through powered garage doors, relaxing on backyard decks, reemerging as parents drove kids to activities far from their homes.

Her fascination with the composition of neighborhoods has since grown. It was a focus of her scholarship in graduate school at UCLA and the subject of a paper she published last spring in the journal American Politics Research about how data analysis shows that the physical structure of residential areas that include gathering places affects voter turnout.

Now LeVan has moved on to the latest urban trend, as suburbanites move into cities, fueling a wave of urban migration—and gentrification—that has swept the nation, from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore.

LeVan’s window to that urban change is Google Street View, which allows her to closely examine gentrifying neighborhoods street by street, house by house, porch by porch, and to compare recent images with those of a decade ago.

She selected cities across the country—Baltimore, Houston, Indianapolis, Seattle, 23 in all—and then found census tracts that, in 2010, were ripe for gentrification based on low-education rates and property values. She then went to a Census Bureau survey (the American Community Survey) done in 2017 and searched for those areas within that cohort where property values had increased by 30 percent and the number of people with college degrees had climbed to above the national average.

Google Street View comparison, Phoenix, Arizona
Phoenix, Arizona. Copyright 2019 Street View by Google Maps

LeVan and her Colby student researchers are using these virtual walking tours to record in painstaking detail the change that gentrification has wrought. Has an abandoned house been razed or renovated? Does a house still have a front porch? Is the property fenced? Is that empty lot still empty or is it condos? Has greenspace been added? The research is creating an extensive database of images, but also coding the physical changes in the neighborhood.

All of this information will be used to answer questions about gentrification:

How does the physical design of space change or remain the same through gentrification? How does the use of space change or stay the same through gentrification? How do these changes in design change the social and political behavior of the old-timers versus the newcomers? How do these changes manifest in different parts of the country?

“So the big question is, how does gentrification change the behavior of the residents?” LeVan said. “Does gentrification negatively impact, for example, talk between neighbors in that community?” If gentrification leads to increased isolation, are the higher-income, more-educated residents still participating [in voting and other forms of civic engagement] below expectations?”

She plans to augment her quantitative analysis with qualitative information gleaned the old-fashioned way: knocking on doors in the selected neighborhoods. She is considering offering a Jan Plan that would have students take part in the research.

LeVan is also interested in issues of race that emerge as neighborhoods change. Are newcomers policing the old-timers? Is there an increase in calls to police reporting loitering on stoops, people talking on porches, gathering in front yards?

Google Street View comparison, Baltimore, Maryland
Baltimore, Maryland. Copyright 2019 Street View by Google Maps

There is both good and bad associated with gentrification, LeVan points out. Property values increase, and there are more opportunities for entrepreneurs. Sometimes unusable lots are turned into communal greenspace. In one neighborhood, a vacant lot was turned into a dog park. Another was turned into a new communal barbecue area. An unused space had benches added, turning it into a place for residents to congregate.

“People ask me, ‘Do you think gentrification is bad?’” LeVan said. Her reply? “It’s complicated.”

In fact, the changes also displace low-income residents, and many big cities haven’t made provisions for those residents, who often work low-paying but important jobs. Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco have seen rents and property values skyrocket, pushing working-class residents further and further from their jobs. “It’s a problem about class and it’s a problem about race,” LeVan said. “And it’s a big problem. Cities need to understand that.”

This latest research is the early stages of a two-book project, she said, and builds on her earlier paper. That paper wasn’t an easy sell. “I had a really hard time publishing my first piece of this project,” she said. “Political scientists kept going, ‘This isn’t political science. You’re measuring architectural features. Go to urban planning.’ Urban planning says, ‘You’re measuring vote. Go back to political science.’”

In fact, in her work LeVan does pull from urban planning. But she also pulls from political science and sociology and psychology. She sees herself as a political scientist who focuses on local politics. “In local politics, land use is the number one point of contention,” she said. “That’s all city governments do—figure out how to use land.”

Local government is concerned with land use, but also with property tax and zoning. LeVan is looking at all of those areas—in this case through the lens of gentrification, exploring the emerging field of scholarship called urban affairs.

Yes, that new porch or addition or fence may tell a bigger story. “At the root, what I care about is figuring out how we can use space to maximize community,” LeVan said, “and the end result would be a more thriving, engaged democracy. That’s the end goal.”